The story of Lucifer, heaven’s paragon brought low by his own greed and blind ambition, has fascinated artists for centuries. Rubens painted him descending from the sky in a column of flesh and hellfire; he lurked in Dante’s Ninth Circle, ruled Milton’s Pandæmonium and was even the protagonist of a series of graphic novels. Now, director Gust Van den Berghe has reached into art’s history to tell his own story of Lucifer’s fall, inspired by the tondo art of the Renaissance to present his images in a circular frame, something not seen before on film. It is a bold rejection of cinema’s greatest assumption – its rectangular image – and, accompanied by a story stripped of the grand allegory that often encumbers divine matters, Van den Berghe’s interpretation is naturalistic, composed and disquieting.
Many of Lucifer’s circular images were shot using an innovative device called a ‘Tondoscope,’ a curved conical mirror directly above which a camera is placed to shoot straight down onto it, capturing the surroundings reflected on the cone’s surface. The effect is one of the landscape wrapping around itself in a perfect circle, a completely enclosed environment, a microcosmic world. The film opens in this way and, just as the fallen Lucifer must orient himself in our terrestrial realm, we are forced to try and make some sense of the image presented to us. For those scenes not shot with the Tondoscope the intimacy granted by the smaller image makes Van den Berghe’s character closeups resemble Renaissance portraits yet the longer shots are more detached, as if we are watching this planet and its inhabitants from far above, with a god’s-eye view.
The story itself is an understated portrayal of Lucifer’s transition from heaven to hell; he finds himself in Paricutin, a rural Mexican village situated on the side of a volcano, a prelapsarian paradise where the concepts of good and evil are yet to be considered by its residents. Lucifer, in his state of transition from angel to devil, is the only being with the awareness of both. He appears as neither a shining beacon nor a horned devil but just a rather sinister stranger. We get only fleeting reminders of his otherworldliness, such as his strange ringing of a ruined church tower, a sounding of bells that announces his arrival on this earthly plane. Ironically, the villagers only consider his divinity after he pretends to heal a man who he knows is merely faking his ailment. After this they regard him as the angel he is (or was) yet he has done nothing to deserve their adoration.
Lucifer’s interaction with the villagers represents only one part of the story. Once he leaves they are devastated by his abandonment and are forced to confront their altered spirituality. The ruined church that the local priest has vowed to rebuild from the start is turned into a gaudy monument to attract Lucifer’s attention, a desperate plea for him to return and cure their ills. It is empty worship. The realism of the earlier acts begin to be superseded by more allegorical and spiritual scenes, including a ritual procession across a volcano and what look like transitions into the afterlife. Although more abstract in their narrative implications, these scenes are presented as naturally as the rest, journeys symbolised by the crossing of a lake or the climbing of a wall. They are serene, poetic and original explorations of death and the afterlife, complemented by Van den Berghe’s unusual framing.
Time will tell if the more unorthodox aspects of Lucifer – namely, the Tondoscopic and circular images – will be adopted for future works. Part of the success of the film is that the content elevates the method beyond mere gimmickry. Van den Berghe has a keen eye for detail and rather than being constrained by the compacted image size – his circular frame is only around 40% of the area of a standard widescreen frame – it seems to have had a liberating influence, allowing the director to create his own unique compositions. Everything is shifted towards the centre of the frame, creating an intimate, uncluttered style which encourages the closest scrutiny of its subjects. In them are visible all of the peculiarities of the human race, yet it is only Lucifer’s malign influence that allows them to recognise their sins for what they are. The whole world is reflected in these round images and never has it looked so close and so far away all at once. Like the residents of Paricutin, we’ve not seen the likes of Lucifer before and we may not again, so enjoy it while it’s here.
Country: Mexico, Belgium
Language: Purépecha, Spanish
Director: Gust Van den Berghe
Cinematographer: Hans Bruch Jr.
Writer: Gust Ven den Berghe
Starring: Jeronimo Soto Bravo, María Costa, Norma Pablo
Runtime: 110 minutes